Jack Brabham was a second generation Aussie who’s grandfather came from the Cockney area of East London. His father who owned a grocery store just outside of Sydney was a keen motorist who taught Brabham how to drive a car at the age of 12. At 15 Brabham left school and got a job in a local garage while spending his evenings studying engineering at Kogarah Tech. At 18 he joined the Royal Australian Air Force in Adelaide, where he wanted to learn to fly but was instead trained as a flight mechanic.
In 1946 after two years duty in the Air Force Brabham opened a small repair business in Sydney with the help of an uncle. He soon made the acquaintance of an ex-patriot American by the name of Johnny Schonberg who raced midget cars. Brabham prepared a new car for the American but after his wife induced him to quit racing it was left to Brabham to try his hand. After some sketchy instructions he made his debut at Paramatta Park Speedway. In his first season he won the New South Wales Championship. During this time he would form a relationship with Ron Tauranac that would continue later into Formula One and Europe.
In 1955 he made his way to Europe and had his Grand prix debut at Aintree. After an abortive stint driving a private Maserati 250F he joined the Cooper team. When Brabham showed up at the Cooper Car Company to take up their offer of a car, legend has it that he was shown a pile of tubes in a rack and told to start building. 1959 saw the Cooper with a proper 2 1/2 liter Coventry Climax engine with which Brabham won the World Championship beating Stirling Moss. In 1960 he repeated this feat with a new lowline model, which included a streak of five straight victories.
Finding his influence proscribed at Cooper he decided to strike out on his own in partnership with Ron Tauranac and Motor Racing Developments. Initially this partnership produced cars for several of the lower categories including Formula 2 where they achieved considerable success. They moved into a premises in Surbiton which is situated south west of central London that was owned by the Australian automotive parts company Repco.
Brabham at the Brickyard
In 1961 Brabham made history at the Indianapolis 500 when he entered a modified Formula One Cooper with a 2.7 litre Climax engine. His small rear-engined car looked almost effete when compared to the Offenhauser powered front-engined roadsters driven by all the other entrants. While the roadsters were much faster on the long front and back straights, the little Cooper’s superior handling through the turns kept Brabham in the hunt. Running as high as third before finishing ninth and to the surprise of all the other racers, he did so completing the entire 200 laps. Within a matter of years all of the cars that raced at Indianapolis would be rear-engine.
Almost everything will seem very much as usual next Tuesday when some 250,000 persons assemble at Indianapolis for the annual 500-mile auto race, but one thing will make the occasion very different: the presence of the small, green British bullet shown below. Lurking five rows down in pole position as the 33 cars line up for this 45th running of America’s greatest race, this Cooper-Climax adaptation of a Grand Prix racer will pose a hard, new question, which all the color and clamor of Indy on Memorial day will not be able to smother: Is the time-honored Indianapolis roadster still master of the Brickyard, or is it merely an expensive fossil soon to be pulverized by intruders from overseas?
The new 1 1/2 liter engine limit in Formula One found the British teams scrambling for motive power. While the small engined cars seemed tailor made for Jimmy Clark and Lotus, Brabham’s aggressive style seemed unsuited and he would not win a race during the 1500 cc era. It was left to American Dan Gurney to take the team’s maiden victory at Rouen. For 1966 a new 3 liter formula came into existence. Brabham found an engine in his own backyard with the Australian Repco Company. The Repco-Brabham would provide Brabham a car with which he won the French, British, Dutch and German Grands Prix and that years World Championship. The next year would follow with another championship for the team, this time the title went to his teammate Denis Hulme.
1968 belonged to Lotus and Ford-Cosworth despite the tragic death of Jimmy Clark. For 1969 Brabham also had a Ford-Cosworth engine deal but a broken ankle during a test crash ruined his title chances. He returned to racing before the end of the year, but promised his wife that he would retire after the season finished and sold his share of the team to Tauranac.
In 1970 he had hoped to retire but finding all the top drivers unavailable he decided to continue driving for one more year. Rather than going through the motions he won the season opener at the South African Grand Prix and led the always difficult Monaco Grand Prix until the final corner of the last lap while under pressure of the onrushing Jochen Rindt. The Mexican Grand Prix would be his last race but even at 44 the fires still burned bright.
After retiring from driving he sold his interest in the team to his partner Ron Tauranac and returned to his native Australia. Later in his life Brabham would regret making such a clean break from Formula One. Besides maintaining his garage business he still makes appearances at the various vintage races that seem to be springing up everywhere.